Tag Archives: milk cows

A Decision to Be Made: How Much Do We Care About GMOs?

We’ve been using a soy-free feed on our farm since we purchased our first cow back in 2009.  In my mind, soy is the most deadly foodstuff on the market, and I absolutely do not want my children consuming any more than they have to.  I am fairly satisfied with our current feed mix, but I have talked to both shareholders and prospective shareholders about trying for a GMO-free feed, too.  Let’s talk this through.

Are GM Foods Actually Dangerous?

I am not personally convinced that genetically modified foods are dangerous in and of themselves.  Most people who believe they are will say something like: “We’re consuming DNA now that our bodies were never meant to utilize.”  The reality is, though, that we change the DNA of our plants and livestock all the time.  It’s called selective breeding.  Every time we save the seeds from that one tomato that didn’t get blight, or hatch the eggs from just our best layers, we’re altering the characteristics – and DNA – of the species.

The GMO crops in question have been altered in the lab, primarily for resistance to the herbicide Roundup.  This allows farmers to spray their fields in order to kill weeds without affecting their crops.  I don’t think the main problem here is the change in the plants’ DNA; the existence of Roundup-resistant weeds suggests that, over time, corn, too, could have naturally mutated into a resistant variety.  I think the real problem is the Roundup.

I’ve read a fair bit of research lately about the effects of the miniscule amounts of Roundup residue that may be in our GM foods, and it’s pretty bad.  I also checked to see if the cows could possibly act as a filter for the residue, but it seems Roundup passes through milk.  Not only that, but it appears to build up in the body, like mercury.  Lifetime exposure matters.

Our Current Feed

We have our feed custom-mixed by Richard Uhl in Corydon, Indiana.  It contains:

30% distillers grain
20% corn gluten
30% wheat
20% oats

The distillers grain actually comes from our local distilleries, and wonder of wonders, they do not accept GMO grains.  The corn gluten is trucked in from Cincinatti, and Richard suspects it is probably a byproduct of ethanol production.  That means it will be from GM corn and will most likely contain Roundup residues.  The wheat is all locally sourced, and in spite of an article circulating to the contrary, none of it has been sprayed with any herbicide.  Also, there are no GM wheat varieties on the market.  Oats are not GM, either, but they aren’t grown around here; our oats arrive from somewhere up north.  I suspect that the oats, like wheat, are actually not routinely sprayed, especially by smaller farms, and can be considered safe.

That means we have a single ingredient that can not be assumed to be free of Roundup residue – the corn gluten – and each cow consumes approximately 1.6 pounds of it each day.

To put this in perspective a little bit, the daily diet of each cow in the winter consists of about 40 pounds of grass hay, 10 pounds of alfalfa, and 8 pounds of our grain mix, which includes the corn gluten.  They also still forage a little in the pastures.  The corn gluten makes up less than 3% of their total diet.

Alternatives to Corn Gluten

We’re looking at legumes, probably peas or lentils.  Legumes are the only feedstuff that approximates the protein and energy profile of the corn gluten.  On the positive side, I think it’s a more nutritious option for the cows, and therefore for us who drink their milk.  On the negative side, peas and lentils are not grown locally, and like oats, they’re going to be expensive.  I may have to adjust the balance of the other ingredients, too. I feed alfalfa hay summer and winter, and that is also a legume.  Too many legumes in the diet cause loose stools.

The Bottom Line

Unless I’m able to locate a cheaper source of peas or lentils, it’s going to translate into a $4.00 increase in monthly share costs, as well as increases in the price of cream, butter and cheese.

What do you think, prospective and current shareholders?  Is eliminating GMO corn gluten important enough to you that you’re willing to pay for it?  Or are you willing to live with the small amount of GMO feed in the cows’ diet?  This is going to be entirely up to you!

How To Breed For Heifers

Did I say tomorrow?  I meant the day after tomorrow.  🙂

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Since I rely on my vet to inseminate my cows, and since my vet isn’t always available when I want him, I’ve always been a little panicky about calling him as soon as my cows show signs of being in heat.  The first time he came out, he stuck his long, gloved arm in there, and said, “She’s only just coming into heat.  That’s great.  And breeding her now will increase your odds of getting a heifer.”

So I learned how to tell when my cow was in heat (yeah!) and I inadvertently learned how to get heifers.  I don’t always want heifers, but I get ’em anyway, because I’m panicky about calling the vet as soon as my girls show signs of being in heat.

This stuff here has to do with human fertility.  The female releases an egg at ovulation, and the egg always carries an x chromosome.  The male’s sperm can have either an x or a y chromosome, and that is what determines the gender of the baby; two x chromosomes is a girl, an x and a y is a boy.  Now the sperm are longer lived than the egg, so the egg can be fertilized by sperm donated at least a couple of days in advance.  (Chickens are good for as long as three weeks!)  Male “y” sperm are lighter and faster, but they die more quickly.  Female “x” sperm are bigger and slower, but they live longer.  If the sperm are introduced when the egg is ready, those male sperm have an advantage over the females, but if the sperm are applied before the egg is released, it is more likely that the males will die before they can achieve fertilization, giving the females a wide-open shot.

I figure cows are mammals, too, and even though their cycle is shorter, and their fertile period is much shorter, it works basically the same.  Susanna got it right when she said, “NFP for cows!”

When a cow first shows signs of heat, she is moo-ey, restless and less interested in grazing.  She will mount the other cows (or you!) and the other cows will try to mount her, but she will move out of the way.  You may also notice a soft vulva and perhaps some mucus.  I usually notice this behavior first thing in the morning, but my vet won’t answer the phone until eight.  Very tense for me.  And he always asks if the cow in question is in standing heat. Standing heat is when the cow will allow the other cows to mount her.  She will stand for it, perhaps looking over her shoulder to watch, but make no effort to get out of the way.   I always say “yes”, even though the answer is really no.  He’ll only come if I say yes, and by breeding at the first signs of oncoming heat, we are favoring the female sperm, who are more likely to still be alive when the cow’s egg is released later in the day.

We’ve had six calves born on our farm, and all but one have been heifers.  The one bull was born to a half-Brown Swiss cow who never showed any obvious heat signs.  I could only tell she was in heat when she was in standing heat, and I was not surprised to see her bull-calf earlier this month.  That cow is going into the freezer next month because she’s all around harder to breed and her gestation lasted three weeks longer than for my full-blooded Jerseys.  And she’s huge and slightly stubborn, which scares my backup milkers.

Now most experienced farmer-types laugh at me when I tell them this stuff.  They tend to be men, though; perhaps they just don’t have the appropriate appreciation for female fertility cycles.  And most of them won’t breed till standing heat because they want to make sure the pregnancy “sticks” the first time, but the only cow we’ve had to breed twice is that Brown Swiss.  If you wait till she stands, you’ve waited too long.  🙂

So there you have it.  Bottom line: Call your AI tech or vet as soon as you suspect your cow is going into heat, and dramatically increase your odds of having girls.